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10 Common Faux Amis
Just What Exactly are Faux Amis?
For those of you who have never studied a foreign language, or even for those of you who have and are still baffled by the idea of faux amis, let me begin with the clarification that the French phrase translates to 'false friends'. If these words immediately arouse your suspicions and heighten your senses, well done! After all, just as one wouldn't be inclined to trust a false friend in reality, so you shouldn't trust one in grammar and language learning, particularly not as you continue to progress with the language, and as recognition of the distinction between different words and phrases gains importance. To put it simply, faux amis refers to French words that bear a close resemblance to ones in your native tongue, lulling you into a false sense of security and causing you to make the mistake of assuming that the two words hold the same meaning. In a language like French the identification of faux amis is particularly important because many words, including discussion, adaptation, and passion, are actually vrais amis (true friends), holding the same spelling and meaning as their English counter-parts and, as such, amplifying this sense of security that makes it so easy to fall into the faux amis trap. Due to this abundance of genuine similarities between French and English, the identification of faux amis, or words that appear similar but are actually quite different, becomes fundamental for not only understanding the language, but also for avoiding potentially embarrassing situations.These are the top ten examples that are spelled differently that used to, or still do, trip me up in my quest to learn the language:
I want to go to the book store: Je veux aller à la librairie
I want to go to the library: Je veux aller à la bibliothèque
1. Librairie ≠ Library
Unfortunately the French word librairie not only looks a lot like the English word library, but also broadly sounds like it as well. As such, these words are very easy to confuse with frustrating frequency, particularly as librairie also pertains to books, leaving nothing of any real conspicuousness to obviously distinguish the pair. Despite these similarities, however, it is actually bibliothèque that translates to library, leaving librairie to humbly translate to book store.
2. Achever ≠ Achieve
Again, due to the similarity with both appearance and pronunciation, this combination used to trip me up at almost every turn. The French verb achever, however, does not mean to achieve something, but rather to finish and complete something. We would, perhaps, use the French verb accomplir to reference an achievement, a word that, as you may have already noticed, is something of a vrais amis with the English word accomplish.
3. Sortir ≠ Sort
Verbs are already difficult to learn given their abundance, their strange conjugation rules, and their multiple exceptions, but a language like French adds greatly to this complexity through the number of faux amis it has to offer. Therefore, despite the complete lack of shared meaning between these words, one can be easily forgiven for assuming that sortir means to sort, as they both look and sound relatively the same, Thankfully, given the importance of learning verbs quite early during the arduous task of language learning, it shouldn't take long to have the fact that sortir actually means to exit or to leave drilled into you. Sort, on the other hand, could be represented by a number of words, one of which is classer, meaning to classify.
4. Sympathie ≠ Sympathy and Sympathique ≠ Sympathetic
These are being grouped together for their obvious similarities, yet are being distinguished between due to the difficulties that they frequently present to learners of the French language.Yes, that's right, sympathie and sympathique usually don't mean sympathy or sympathetic, but rather refer respectively to friendship and to someone who is nice or likeable, which may be represented by the word sympa. Although sympathie can sometimes refer to sympathy or compassion, it is important to remember that these words most often pertain to kindness and friendship, and that it can therefore be all too easy to misuse them if you fall into the faux amis trap.
He is nice: Il est gentil
He is gentle: Il est doux
5. Gentil ≠ Gentle
As in the above example, Faux Amis are often challenging due to their vaguely shared meanings. Therefore, unlike the faux amis that have completely different meanings and are complicated merely due to their similar appearance or pronunciation, these examples derive their difficulty from the fact that the two words do indeed share a meaning. This is difficult because what may be the only or primary meaning in the first language, is a secondary meaning - or one only alluded to in a very specific context or usage of the word - in the second. This can, of course, cause much confusion and lead to the incorrect usage of certain words. For example, gentil in French means nice, not gentle. Although broadly speaking you can certainly argue that a person who is nice is probably gentle in both their mannerisms and behaviour, you can still see how using gentil the same was as gentle could become very problematic in certain situations. A more appropriate French word to convey the sentiments of gentle is perhaps doux, meaning soft and smooth, although obviously the appropriate word to use depends upon a vast array of factors and therefore fluctuates wildly from one situation to another.
7. Ceinture ≠ Century
These two sound alike and look similar, but ceinture, far from referring to a hundred year period, instead means belt, waistband, or girdle. It is actually the word cent that means hundred and the word siècle that means century, so you certainly need to be careful not to confuse this very different pair.
6. Gros ≠ Gross
Gross in English has a large number of meanings, although the one that probably springs to mind for many is its informal usage as a sentiment of something that is disgusting and repulsive. Although it certainly does carry this meaning, the word gross also refers to something unrefined, something complete, something on a large-scale as opposed to being detailed, or something unattractively large. It is these last two meanings that connect best with the French gros, meaning large, big, grand etc., although, once again, it is important to recognise that gros and gross do not share a meaning, and that the pair are likely not the best substitutes for each other when translating between the languages.
The girl screams: La fille crie
The girl cries: La fille pleure
8. Crier ≠ Cry
Again, these two do share a meaning, but context is incredibly important, and it makes this list due to the simplicity with which one could employ incorrect usage. Whilst the English word cry has a few meanings - to shed tears, to shout out in either pain, fear or excitement, or to make some kind of loud call - it is definitely the first meaning that resonates most strongly with English speakers, as the others can and are often substituted for alternative words. The verb crier, however, simply means to shout, so it is important to remember that it cannot substitute the English verb to cry when a bout of weeping is involved. Instead, the French word pleurer means to cry and to shed tears, making it a more appropriate fit.
9. Travailler ≠ Travel
These two are quite easy to remember once you've revised them a few times, due to their entirely opposite meaning. Indeed, despite the similarities that render this pair faux amis, their borderline status as antonyms greatly alleviates much of the difficulty that is associated with other similar pairs. You might have guessed it by now, but travailler, far from meaning travel or holiday, actually means to work. The words for travel and holiday are actually voyager and vacances, two that, as I'm sure you've already recognised, bear great resemblance to their English counterparts.
10. Enfant ≠ Infant
This pair used to constantly trip me up, not because I wasn't aware of the words' meanings, but because I was so used to attaching the word infant to the mental image of a baby or very young child, that I found it difficult to apply to children in general. In French, however, this is precisely what is required, as the word enfant means child, and as such refers to children of all ages, whereas the word bébé refers specifically to babies. Although the confusion of enfant won't cause too many problems with your communication, it is a nice distinction to bear in mind to help guide you along the path to fluency.
I hope this list has proved helpful in conquering those pesky faux amis. Most importantly, try to remember that learning a language is not going to happen overnight, and that making mistakes is an important part of the learning process. It's also important to keep in mind that translating languages is an exceptionally difficult task due to the different feelings and nuances that are conveyed by various words, and therefore the correct substitute word may vary between people and depending upon the situation. Once again, I hope this list helped, and good luck!